Government watchdog says state, DEP misleading public about drinking water quality


fact fake blocks sl In: Government watchdog says state, DEP misleading public about drinking water quality | Our Santa Fe River, Inc. (OSFR) | Protecting the Santa Fe River

The allegations in the following article are extremely serious and should be investigated further.  Unfortunately, issues of this nature have arisen several times before.

Just two examples are  the withholding of information about the Mosaic gypstack sinkhole, and the DEP’s on-going non-enforcement of Pilgrims Pride at their chicken plant on the Suwannee River.

And there are others.

It falls back to Gov. DeSantis, who has had plenty of time to fix this.

Read the original article here in the Fort Meyers News-Press.

Comments by OSFR historian Jim Tatum.
-A river is like a life: once taken, it cannot be brought back-

Government watchdog says state, DEP misleading public about drinking water quality

Chad Gillis, Fort Myers News-Press Published 6:00 a.m. ET June 15, 2019 | Updated 1:47 p.m. ET June 15, 2019

A government watchdog organization says the state is purposely misrepresenting information about drinking water facility violations, reporting a high rate of compliance while the numbers are actually much lower.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, or PEER, released a report last week that says more than half of the state’s drinking water facilities have violations that aren’t being reported to the public by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP.

“There’s not but a couple of explanations: either they didn’t have the data and they’re making these numbers up or they have the data and the data really doesn’t bear out what they’re claiming,” said Jerry Phillips, a former DEP attorney who compiled the PEER report.

DEP says about 95 percent of facilities are compliant and that Phillips and PEER have miscalculated the data.

Phillips said fewer than 42 percent of drinking water facilities are actually in compliance with laws meant to protect drinking water.

He said current and former DEP employees have reached out to him to talk about the compliance rates and whether the approach has changed under Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“What I’m hearing from the employees is ‘that at this point, we’re seeing the same old, same old,'” Phillips said. “I’m not hearing about any change in policies to put any breaks on this so-called compliance approach.”

Phillips said DEP does not have data on compliance rates prior to 2008.

“It’s like an ostrich with his head in the sand,” Phillips said of DEP. “(The data used in the PEER report) is data that their own inspectors have reported to management. Enforcement is horrible as well. There’s not a serious effort being made to make sure the drinking water Floridians and visitors consume is contaminant free.”

The report says DEP is making false and misleading statements to the public regarding drinking water and has exaggerated claims of historically high compliance levels.

Phillips said DEP in 2011 changed the way it looks at violators, that the state uses a new approach to make the numbers look better.

“DEP now sends Compliance Assistance Offers (CAOs) to violators when violations are found,” the PEER report reads. “These CAOs advise the violator that no formal enforcement will be initiated if the violator corrects the identified problem or allows DEP to educate the violator about the steps needed to comply with the violator’s permit. Under this new approach, the DEP theoretically subjects only the most recalcitrant violators to formal enforcement. DEP has repeatedly claimed that environmental compliance rates have risen to historically high levels because of this new approach.”

The report says the number of statewide inspections has dropped from about 15,500 in the 2012-13 fiscal year to about 8,400 in 2017-18.

DEP officials, however, say Phillips is incorrectly compiling his numbers and that DEP is focused on more major violations that could impact public health.

“Minor non-compliance issues are often administrative in nature, such as the timely (submission) of monitoring and reporting paperwork, and are not violations or non-compliance issues that would present any potential risk to the environment or public health and safety,” said DEP spokeswoman Dee Ann Miller. “Our compliance rate is calculated based on significant non-compliance, which are those violations that are more serious in nature, such as violations of water quality standards, or spills that could cause environmental harm.”

Former governor and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott started the compliance program in question, and Phillips says it appears DeSantis and his administration are following the same path, using the same formulas to give the public a sense that drinking water facilities are highly compliant when actually they’re not.

And Phillips said DEP is trying to convince the public that drinking water across the state is safe while the data paints a different picture.

“Finally they produced a set of documents that was nothing more than a list of percentages without the underlying data,” he said. “I told them I wanted the underlying data. I wanted to see what was backing this stuff up. That data clearly showed a difference between what they were telling the public and what was happening in reality.”

Calusa Waterkeeper John Cassani said the report is concerning and that he wants to see DeSantis take a different approach to drinking water violations.

“I think everyone’s kind of desperately hoping DeSantis will break out of that mold that Rick Scott developed throughout the years, the lack of enforcement and compliance,” Cassani said. “But I want to give DeSantis a little more time to see if he’s broken out of that paradigm.”

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